What Is Going On With Me??

Just a quick warning: this (very long) post is going to be about a topic that is not necessarily for everyone: (peri)menopause. So if you are not interested in reading about that, this post is not for you. Otherwise, let’s move on without further ado.

I am now of a certain age and over the past year and a half, maybe two years, I’ve begun to notice certain changes in myself. At first, I just figured maybe it was stress, or those odd, unexplained things that sometimes ail you and then disappear as suddenly as they appear. As for my thoughts occasionally being a bag of ferrets – well, that’s not entirely new to me though the degree to which was definitely a few levels beyond what I was used to.

The first hint I had, though, of something feeling truly different was when I had my first, honest to god, uncontrollable mood swing. I was suddenly, inexplicably, and without warning pissed off at everyone and everything and for absolutely no good reason whatsoever. And then as suddenly as the Grump-from-Hell showed up, she was gone again. For me, that was weird, because I don’t get mood swings; I didn’t get them when I was pregnant, I’ve never had them when I had my periods. But my mood this time was literally beyond my control: it was like I had nothing to say about these feelings, no way to calm down, just … nothing! I felt like one of those ants that gets invaded by a parasite and then just turn into zombies, except I was an angry zombie and I had no spores growing out of my dead head (thank goodness).

Anyway, that’s when I started to take all those changes a little more seriously. What follows is an enumeration of some of the things I’ve been going through. The reason I’m writing this post is because this is a pretty turbulent time for me and I imagine I’m not the only one who feels this way. At times, when another symptom hits or the same symptom hits again I become downright suspicious of my body: “What is this pain/discomfort/weirdness? I’ve never had/felt this before. Is this normal?? Is my body trying to kill me?”

As always: this post only outlines my personal experiences. Every menopause is different, though there are common signs and symptoms. If you are concerned, contact your doctor. Some healthcare systems actually have doctors specializing in menopause.

Enough introduction. Here we go.

Hot Flashes

I thought I’d start with a very common symptom: hot flashes. My core temperature is pretty low, and I am more often cold than warm. And my first hot flash felt bizarre. Literally from one minute to the next I felt flushed, with hot skin, began sweating, and it was like nothing I’d felt before. It didn’t last long, though it felt plenty long to me. I vividly remember trying to cool myself down by standing in front of the freezer with the door open. More about hot flashes (also night sweats) here.

Stiff Joints

The next thing I started noticing is that, even though I am still pretty flexible – probably thanks to yoga – I have these periods of stiffness in the joints. From one day to the next I will suddenly have inflexible hips, very little neck mobility, or stiff shoulders. This stiffness can last anywhere from days to weeks, and it makes every yoga session an exciting new adventure (that was sarcasm). Here is some more information about age and menopause related joint pain.

Weird and Unexplained Aches and Pains

I’ve noticed some weird aches and pains not related to joints as well. A sudden cramp here, a sudden stab of pain there. Nothing worrying, but rather annoying. If you are experiencing unexplained aches and pains and you are worried, contact your doctor. Don’t hesitate, just call. That’s what they’re there for.

Weight Gain

This is a funny one. Not funny-ha-ha, funny-weird.

All of my life, any weight gained always went straight to my hips. I’m not kidding: nothing ever, ever went to my stomach. Then one morning all of a sudden there it was: a tummy! No matter how many sit-ups or Russian twists or airplanes I do, that fat ain’t goin’ nowhere!

I’m not complaining, it’s just not anything I’ve ever had any experience with. I’ve literally never had to worry about my tummy; it was always just flat. Now, my butt, that’s a whole different story…

The abdominal weight gain is apparently a function of your body looking to replace the estrogen whose levels are dropping during menopause, and the fat provides that. This article explains how that works, exactly. For me, the only upside I can see is that it means I need to update my wardrobe. Mostly, though, I have been having to get used to a different body with a different shape. It’s weird for me and it’s not easy, not least because my moods are also affected during this time and so feeling anxious about the way I look comes a lot more easily. (More about this later.)

Painful Breasts

Now this is the one symptom that is really tripping me up. Until a few years ago, my breasts were just my breasts: part of my body, part of my shape. I have had some issues with them (cysts) but on the whole they were just part of me and I didn’t worry about them. That’s changed.

Sometimes I have entire weeks when my breasts just hurt, sometimes one and sometimes both. Like a lot of women, I regularly self-examine (here’s how to do that and what to look and feel for) and a while back I felt a lump. I called the women’s breast cancer department in my hospital directly (this hospital throws up no barriers for women who are concerned about possible breast cancer – if you feel something, they will schedule you in for an exam as soon as possible) and had a full exam, including a mammogram and an ultrasound, and was then seen by a doctor who also performed a hands-on exam. I was cleared, but it turned out I did have another one of those cysts I mentioned earlier.

Moral of the story: I was lucky and fine, and cysts are sometimes painful, and any lump you feel in there is likely to cause you some worry. And I won’t lie: there are times when I seriously contemplate whether one (or both) of my breasts is going to make me sick or, even worse, kill me. It’s not a fun way to feel about a part of your body.

As my doctor told me during my follow-up appointment: breasts react immediately to hormonal changes, and sometimes that can feel pretty damn worrying. Do keep in mind in all of this that the same hormonal changes that your breasts are responding to can also be responsible for enhancing those worries, sometimes creating some real emotional turmoil. Speaking of…

Worries and Feelings

The worrying. Ugh. And the feels. Sometimes all the feels at once! Hormonal shifts during menopause often result in mood swings but also mood disorders and based on my own experience this is not something to take lightly. All this worrying and the sheer force of the emotions that well up sometimes out of nowhere is definitely not something I think I could have prepared for. Like undoubtedly everyone else I have had times where I worried about things and sometimes perhaps excessively, but this is of a whole different level.

For me, regular exercise and meditation level me out a little bit, but there are also times I decide to just ride the wave, put on a sad movie and just let it all out, or do a happy dance when the hormones decide it’s time to feel giddy. Mostly, though, not being on an even keel half the time is exhausting and because I would like to be able to function as a not-insane adult there are times when I use up a lot of energy managing my moods.

Brain Fog

Here’s another one I wasn’t ready for: my brain slowing down or just downright taking a mini break in the middle of my day. Reading a paragraph and promptly forgetting what I just read. Or reading a paragraph but having the information bounce off my brain as though it was shielded against content somehow. Or remembering there’s something I have to do and then immediately forgetting to do that thing. Six times a day. That same thing. Or going into another room to get something and forgetting what I was going to get as soon as I am through the door. Or putting my phone down somewhere and spending the next hour looking for it. Or starting a sentence and then not –

The official term for this type of “brain fog” is menopause-related cognitive impairment, and this too shall pass, but while it is there it can be seriously disruptive, and not a little scary. As I have a family member with Alzheimer’s, the specter of dementia looms large and with the hormone-induced increase in worrying, this, again, is not exactly a fun symptom to have.

Migraines

Yay. Migraines. Such fun. I am used to migraines, as I’ve been getting them since I was 19. The thing is, I didn’t get them very often. Now, the intensity of the migraine itself is less (though there’s still no painkiller that will even make a dent in the pain), but I get them more often, and they bring an increase in brain fog with them. So I am pretty much functionally impaired at least one day a month these days.

Difficult and Irregular Periods

Even though this is what menopause is all about – the end of periods – I’ve saved this one for last, because it sort of ties all the symptoms I have discussed so far together. As I recently discovered when I talked to a friend about this, I’ve been pretty lucky with my periods for most of my life; they’ve always been extremely regular and they have barely bothered me at all. Sure, there was blood, sometimes a lot of it, but hardly any cramps, no mood swings, no fatigue, no headaches, no bloatedness, nothing! That began to change a little under 2 years ago. First with increased moodiness and fatigue, and cramps, then migraines and pelvic pain were added, and now I regularly have the full spectrum: bloated, hot flashes, migraines, fatigue, mood swings, diarrhea, cramps, pelvic pain. Quite the smorgasbord, no?

And on top of all that, my periods are becoming more unpredictable: sometimes a little ahead of or behind schedule, rarely just weeks early or late, sometimes light, sometimes heavy … it’s anyone’s guess, really.

Changes in periods can feel very concerning. Like my breasts, I feel like my uterus could just as easily pull a fast one on me and develop abnormal cells, with symptoms that can also be attributed to (peri)menopause. Would I notice if something was wrong? (Once more, I would like to refer to the paragraph dealing with hormones turning your usually rational brain into a bag of ferrets.) Again, if you’re worried, contact your doctor.

So, that’s it: a run-down of my experience with the run-up to menopause. It’s a rollercoaster, and there are as many different experiences of menopause as there are women. And while it can be a time of physical and emotional turmoil, it is also a natural process and it will end at some point. Having said that, please remember that just because menopause is a natural process that doesn’t mean you have to suffer with it. There are treatments to lessen the impact of these hormonal, physical and emotional changes and asking for them is nothing to feel bad about.

As premenopausal, perimenopausal, menopausal and post-menopausal symptoms are being taken more seriously and are studied and researched, and as this part of women’s lives is finally becoming less hidden, there are things to take comfort in. First , we know a lot more now about what happens to women’s bodies in this phase of our lives. Second, there are treatments that can help mitigate some of the disruption caused by menopause and the time leading up to and away from it. And finally, we can talk about this, about how we feel physically and emotionally, and hopefully knowing each other’s stories will help us feel more supported and less overwhelmed during such a turbulent time in our lives.

Barrage – A Rant

Photo by Andrew Neel on Pexels.com

This morning my daughter woke me up at 5:45 AM. She is 13 years old and she couldn’t sleep. She had been watching a YouTube video which was immediately followed up with a video of a young girl weighing herself, seeing the number on the scales and entertaining suicidal thoughts. It made her sad, and worried, and she had been caught off guard by this. It’s something she feels she should maybe know about, but that I agree should not have been dumped on her like this.

My daughter and her peers experience this kind of onslaught all the time. Social media are not safe regardless of the safeguard theater companies put on, and while our daughter fortunately feels and knows she can talk to us about her worries, many teenagers don’t have an adult to confide in and are thus left to worry with no perspective, context or explanation. Add to that that there is often a sense of guilt over having watched something that was maybe inappropriate and the fear of hearing that this load they now carry was of their own making and you have the makings of a cesspool that can really mess a kid up.

For me, I found myself having to explain – barely awake enough to remember that words exist – that anorexia exists and it is awful, and also it is about so much more than weight, or even body dysphoria, but that is a conversation for another time if/when she feels she can handle hearing about it. Try to go back to sleep now, if you can.

What follows now is a rant, plain and simple. I have no solutions, just observations. And feelings about those observations, I guess. Off we go then.

There‘s a whole mass of people out there without any sense of personal responsibility. They live in a selective vacuum, screaming into the wind for no other reason than to validate their own ego, or protect their own fragile comfort zone. They don’t care who gets hurt in the process. They loudly and sometimes violently proclaim their often uninformed and shortsighted opinions to be better than facts because their reality is the only one that matters and anyone unwilling to adopt it is a fool, a sheep, gullible, or should go off and die. I’m not even exaggerating here.

Those people claim that this is all about freedom: freedom to express whatever you want, freedom to be whoever you choose to be. All good things, to be sure, except for the part where they also, apparently, have the freedom to destroy whatever or whoever gets in their way in the process. Freedom from and without consequence. It’s ironic that inevitably the people wreaking this havoc are the same people whose every argument is shrouded in “but think of the children”.

Well, those sounds and sights reach our children and it hurts them, damages them, causes them untold anxiety and worry as it teaches them that the world they live in has nothing in common with the values they are told matter. You know, the values that are promoted by the Disney Channel and teenage popcorn movies. They’re values I agree with: fairness, kindness, honesty. But what those stories mostly fail to communicate is the sheer strength needed to uphold those values in ourselves by ourselves as every aspect of the world today in fact pushes the opposite. And it’s a strength that teenagers need to acquire, but often don’t already possess. Adults often don’t either, because it’s hard.

We live in a world that rates money over humanity, power over fairness, and loud, cruel ignorance over kindness. We try to teach our children how to be a good person, but then we make the mistake of telling them that being a good person should be its own reward, and while that is true it’s also not true, in the same way that a job well done is its own reward, but also a job well done should enable you to put food on the table and a roof over your head at the very least.

Inherent morality needs a feedback loop. And when the world floats on only money, when the Amazons and Googles and Facebooks of the world are rewarded with staggering profits and ridiculous tax avoidance for employing shockingly bad working conditions and turning their users into tradable datasets, rather than protecting or at least respecting the human rights and spirit of its products users and workers, what the hell are we even doing anymore?

We live in a world that has people intelligent enough to create technology that has far-reaching influence over society, that can affect political realities, even overthrow governments and enable corrupt leaders to use these tools to continue their oppressive and destructive rule. A world in which we are apparently smart enough to develop these technologies that could do so much good, but no one is smart enough to deploy or use these tools responsibly and constructively. Or perhaps more accurately: a world where no one cares to do so.

What does this teach our kids? That exploitation is rewarded, and fairness is a losing proposition. That ruthlessness is a virtue, and kindness is a weakness. Just in case it needs to be said: those are the wrong lessons.

Unsolicited information is inflicted on us without warning all the time. For children who are sensitive to what happens in the world, children who care and who are hurt by the pain of others, that can be a nightmare, especially when they are unprepared for it. And who decides which information gets to them? It’s not the parents, who can’t be constant gatekeepers, though most of us really try. At most, we have a semblance of control. We are up against algorithms that have been created with the sole purpose of monetizing us, children included. Adults barely stand a chance against all this, what chance do kids have?

Young Instagram users who want to look at pictures of cute cats and fairytale settings, but in between that have to scroll past “beauty” ads designed to make them feel self-conscious for no good reason, because there is a whole industry looking to monetize that newly instilled insecurity based on nothing real. Yes, the body positivity movement is gaining momentum, but we are so far from where we need to be still. Young YouTube users who want to watch a Just Dance video or see a movie clip and are then suddenly interrupted by a video that packs a psychological punch that not only catches them unawares but also unprepared.

Meanwhile, I have a 13-year old who at the moment feels like she doesn’t even know where to start working through her feelings as she sees all these things that she finds unfair, truly sad, and downright scary. These things wake her up at 5 AM. These things keep her awake when she tries to sleep at night. And she’s right, there’s so much wrong with the world at the moment. And at least some of it is our fault. We are failing our kids at least as much as we have failed ourselves. I’m not saying they need to be protected from everything. At some point, they need to face the realities of the world, but not all at once, and they certainly do not need to be ambushed by it.

We, too, are overpowered, outmanned, outgunned. Money-making algorithms. People are products. And in the midst of all this, we see blissfully unbothered ruthlessness as Facebook floats the idea of Instagram for kids… As the young folks say: I can’t even with these people.

Languishing Just a Little Less

It’s been a few weeks since I wrote my last blog post. It’s not that nothing has been going on, or that I haven’t had experiences or opinions on things or anything like that, I just haven’t been able to muster up much energy. I’ve been suffering from “meh”: every day has been more or less the same, except that I haven’t been able to establish much structure or routine to my days. I’ve just been doing the same things every day, sometimes in a different order, and at a different pace, and sometimes, when my energy has been really low, I haven’t been doing them at all.

For the past few weeks – well, actually for quite some time before that as well – I’ve been feeling pretty low energy. To be fair, at least recently part of that is down to interrupted nights where one of my children or my snoring husband or my cat wakes me up just that hour too early and it drains half my battery before I even start on my day. Thank god for coffee… (though, I know, coffee doesn’t actually provide the pick-me-up we are led to believe: the caffeine in coffee doesn’t wake you up, but it does counter adenosine, which is the thing that makes you sleepy.)

But it’s more than just not getting enough sleep. It’s that each day consists of lists and lists of chores which need to get done preferably by the end of the day and which then will need to be repeated a few days later because chores never bleeping end, do they?! And while the satisfaction I used to get from a job well done is still there its impact lasts ever shorter. The energy I manage to bring to the things I do is also less. And there is not much to change things up at the moment, so perhaps monotony is a factor.

And yet I wonder about that because I also get to spend my days with the people I like best in the world, and we do fun things together like play games, watch movies, cook and bake, and that makes me happy. And of course no two days are the same, though lately they are very similar.

I think that the monotony of activity is not the only thing that is at play, though. It’s also the monotony of location. Like pretty much everyone, the pandemic has me being mostly at home, inside my house, which is a very comfortable place with a lovely garden to enjoy when the weather doesn’t suck – which isn’t often lately. This locational monotony is probably even worse for my husband, who has been truly housebound for the past year, and marginally less so for my son, who has been mostly housebound for the past year. I, at least, get out to shop for groceries (same shops, same morning every week, but with the added joy of seeing my friend with whom I can catch up), and my daughter goes to school part time, so she, too, sees more of the world that way.

But whatever the individual elements are of my current state of mind, I have learned that there is a word for it: languishing. I am languishing. My whole family is languishing. It’s a term that I read about recently in an excellent article by Adam Grant, and it is oddly liberating to know what this funk that I am in is called, not to mention that it is an actual thing! I was reminded of this article again yesterday as I listened to the episode of The Armchair Expert that had Prince Harry talking about mental health (an excellent episode, by the way, which I highly recommend listening to).

Even the cat is languishing

I listened to this podcast, incidentally, while folding the laundry. The little things that help us through the mind-numbing parts of our day, eh? Podcasts have saved my life, I tell you!

Now that I know what the problem is, though, how do I fix it? The languishing itself won’t be fixed, I’m afraid, until there is some freedom to move again without a significant risk to our personal health. In terms of how I experience my day-to-day, though, I did a little introspection and I found that one thing that’s going on is that I actually experience a ton of pressure from the ever-present list of chores. So here, I realized, was something I could do!

I have now begun to take a different approach to my chores: I will still do the things that need doing, but I’m putting less pressure on myself to do them. No more laundry list of things that need to be done by the end of business today, just a list of things that need doing, in order of priority, and I’ll do them but when I’m up to it. I’m not naturally one for sitting still anyway, and I like things at least a little tidy so I know I will get the chores done. I’ve just removed the stress factor of “must ALL be finished by 4 PM” and allowed myself some freedom to take the time to do things that inspire or relax me and I alternate that with the chores, and what doesn’t get done today will get done tomorrow. I don’t necessarily take longer breaks, it’s just that when I’m doing something I enjoy I am actually enjoying it because I’ve given myself permission to do so, and it’s making such a difference!

[I feel like at this point I should acknowledge my privilege in that I actually can do this, where many people cannot, due to any number of factors. This blog post is purely about what I am able to do for myself to combat the languishing a little. In other words: you could see if you think this is an approach worth trying if you have the space, time and situation for it.]

Oddly, I feel like I’m getting pretty much the same amount of work done. My personal time and my work time are about evenly balanced, but the real difference is that when I am sitting down and doing something I like doing, I can truly focus on it, rather than feel like I should really be doing something else. It improves the quality of my personal time, and gives me more energy for the work that needs doing. But most importantly, I feel less like every day is Groundhog Day.

And while that hasn’t defeated the languishing, it is making me feel just that little bit better.

Change Can Be Hard

The seasons are changing – daily, it seems, at the moment; I mean: what is up with the weather?! – and for a lot of people that marks a good time to go through their closet to evaluate their clothes. It’s no different for me, and I go through the process with my children as well.

With my teenage daughter, it’s surprisingly easy. She is unflinchingly honest about what she likes and what no longer works for her, and she has no trouble discarding what doesn’t belong in her closet anymore. To be fair, she’s had some practice recently, as she’s going through, like, the third growth spurt in a year and has had to change the contents of her closet accordingly several times throughout the past year.

My youngest, however, is a different creature altogether. He is 6 and has SPD (Sensory Processing Disorder) and because of his particular sensibilities he tends to form quite a strong attachment to things: cuddly toys (as a lots of kids do) but also games, the coffee machine, and yes, his clothes. So while I might be disappointed when something no longer feels as comfortable to wear, or just isn’t in line with my style anymore even though I truly love the item in question, he will be devastated when that happens. As it is, he is not great with change, but this kind of thing is even harder for him when he has to help make the decisions and see things being removed.

Now, before I continue, I should just note that this is specific to my son and not a defining trait in anyone who has SPD. I should also note that plenty of children who do not have SPD form deep attachments to things. I’m finding the things I’ve learned about my son’s SPD have helped me understand how these sorts of changes impact him. This post is only about my experiences with my son as we updated his closet, and for parents whose kids are similarly sensitive in this respect it may sound very recognizable.

Right, back to the closet. So my son is similarly going through a growth spurt, and has been growing out of things. Knowing how truly sad it can make him to part with things, I have been trying to make the process a little less painful by initially buying new items of underwear and new pairs of socks before filtering out the old ones. It’s one way to make the process a little less difficult for him, and to make it a little less obvious that some things will be going away for good.

But, as I said before, for certain things I will need him to actively participate in the process of taking out the old in order to evaluate what and how much new will be coming in. In order to make this manageable for him, I clearly set the parameters as well as the rules (“If it’s too small, it has to go”, “You never wear this, so let’s let someone else enjoy it.”). And before you ask: no, it does not help him to know that new clothes will be coming in to replace the ones that are going out. He is simply upset that the ones that have to go will be going.

Some of the items that didn’t make the cut were beloved staples. Others were items that he had grown out of before ever having worn them – this does not diminish his attachment to them. To him, it’s just the idea that these items are at home here and he feels awful when they are – in his mind – evicted. To him, each item has a soul, of sorts.

Here’s my little guy watching Ponyo after the clothing change ordeal.

To my great surprise (and relief) the person who has helped me the most in this process is Marie Kondo. Her method of parting with things has actually made it possible for my son to make his peace with this particular change. After we had finished sorting, we put all the clothes that we would not be keeping on a pile and we thought of how to say goodbye to them, and so I found myself holding up about 20 different t-shirts, sweaters and pairs of pants so he could “thank them for their service”. There were genuine tears, which were not accompanied by loud cries and acting out; just five minutes of him silently crying on my shoulder until he felt like he had come to terms.

What also helped him was knowing that the clothes would be passed down to a boy who lives down the street and who will be happy to wear them. It makes the goodbye less definite, and it give him the idea that the clothes have found a new home rather than just having been discarded. It’s a little like grieving in stages.

My son’s SPD has actually illuminated certain things about myself as well. His attachment to things, his idea that things somehow have feelings is something I am sometimes guilty of too, and was much more so when I was a kid. Except back when I was growing up, SPD was not a thing. We were supposed to stop being silly and just get on with it. No one would take seriously a sense of loss when you had to part with something because, after all, it was just a thing. While there’s something to be said for that approach – the world is not necessarily going to take our sensitivities into account – I’m glad that we handle these things differently today. Diagnosing and observing my son have given me a way to communicate with him in a more friendly and effective way, and it’s also given me the tools to find a healthy balance there: acknowledging the sensitivities while teaching him how to deal with them constructively, so he’s able to handle himself when he gets older.

SPD or not, we could probably all use the space and time sometimes to deal with things that we find unexpectedly difficult, for whatever reason. Awareness and validation of those emotions can really help decrease the negative impact of just barreling through and provide some practical instruments to process change, and that’s something we all need.

Picture (im)perfect

In these times of lockdowns and pandemic anxiety, like everyone I have been looking for ways to reduce stress and find a way to inject some new found appreciation into being house bound. I have been trying to tidy (sort of Marie Kondo style, but not quite), bullet journal (intermittently), design and do home workouts (either alone or together with the fam – these are usually binge watch workouts), or study (very, very hard to do with everyone at home and occupying the same space). This list, it turns out, is far too ambitious, but I keep trying.

Our “Psych” binge watch workout. That’s a fair amount of burpees and a lot of half boat extensions per episode…

And then I thought: maybe it will inspire and entertain me to browse through some interior design magazines. I’ll come up with marvelous ideas to make our home feel new and fresh. Turns out, that doesn’t work for me as well as I thought it would.

Why not, you ask? Well…

First of all, when I leaf through these magazines I very often find that the interiors and decorative ideas don’t really work for me – which is entirely a matter of personal taste, of course. Most of the themes and decors just don’t seem to appeal to me. But more importantly: most of the projects that these magazines suggest are so involved, and I just don’t have that kind of time! Or perhaps it’s a matter of prioritizing; I don’t know.

Either way, I really don’t see myself collecting and cleaning off used straws so I can cut them into little pieces and recreate a repurposed plastic mosaic of the Mona Lisa – not to mention that we only use either paper straws these days, or stainless steel washable ones. Should I somehow free up the time it takes to make weekly rounds of my house in order to frame home made art works and hang them on the walls, only to take them down and de-frame them the next week, then use the freed up frames for different home made art works and hang them up instead (lather – rinse – repeat)? Or give my house a whole new feel on the regular with all those personally restored hidden prizes I will have found after hours and hours of flea market treasure hunting; those same hours that – I may have mentioned this earlier – I just don’t have?

I definitely don’t see myself on a whim moving all the furniture out of our living room so I can sand down my wooden floor in order to give it a new finish that makes the floor look like it hasn’t been sanded down or finished at all – I mean, it sounds marvelously modern and magnificently natural, and it would definitely be a fantastic outlet for my inner minimalist, but still.

The main reason, though, why these interior design magazines don’t do it for me is that reading them leaves me frustrated rather than inspired. All those houses with oceans of space. Everything squeaky clean and not a speck of dust anywhere. Everything tidy and in its place. All the time. And these pictures of perfection are supposed to be attainable even for families with children across all ages – as it happens ours run from ages 6 to 13. What kind of exemplary mini humans are these that they are constantly tidying away all their toys and games and clothes and candy wrappers? Don’t they ever want to build a hut in the most inconvenient spot using everything they can find that has not been bolted down? Are there no socks or slippers or stuffies that slide underneath the couch and then lie there, just out of reach but still in sight? Do these children all eat neatly above their plates, spilling neither crust nor crumb?

This is what my living room table looks like when it’s neat and not being used as a dumping ground for every blessed lego piece and hair band and abandoned art project. It’s not exactly a mess, but it’s hardly minimalist perfection.

I know it’s all staged for the photo shoots, but the Stepfordness of it all freaks me out. Even in the houses where everything isn’t perfectly feng-shued on a shelf or neatly folded in a closet (with the closet door slightly ajar so you can see that the contents have indeed been neatly folded and tidily put away rather than hurriedly shoved behind a door because grandma has come over for a surprise visit), the one unfolded item of clothing has been draped over the edge of the bed with stylish “nonchalance”. The lone cuddly toy sitting on the sofa seems more like a modern art installation representing the tragedy of the eventual forced abandonment of childhood than a tattered stuffed bunny the resident 4-year old threw angrily across the room when his mother told him he wasn’t allowed a piece of candy. See? these stylized scenes seem to say, this is a room that’s lived in. Sure it is.

Spot the odd one out…

No, I’m afraid these examples of interior perfection are not for me. Do you know what magazine would work for me? An interior design magazine for families with children who don’t listen or who don’t like or manage to tidy up after themselves, and parents who don’t spend every spare second dusting every inch of their house or polishing their floors. A magazine with a special about storage and tidying solutions with spreads that include photos from before tidying, after tidying, and then five minutes after that, when the kids have been allowed back into the room to do what they usually do.

I’d subscribe to that magazine in a heartbeat!

It Goes On and On

It’s been two weeks since the Dutch government decided to close the schools, finally convinced not only by a panel of experts and healthcare specialists, but by public demand for schools to be closed because people were less than thrilled to have their children be potentially exposed to a dangerous virus and in addition become disease vectors, even if – thank goodness – nearly no children appear to become terribly ill from SARS-CoV-2.

In our house, it has been an adjustment, but not nearly as much as I had feared. To be fair, we’re self-isolating in relative luxury: we have enough food, drink and – and apparently this is a thing – toilet paper. (We have not hoarded toilet paper, yet I don’t worry that we’ll run out.) We also have a very pleasant garden with a trampoline and a comfortable seating area and now that the sun is out almost every day we spend a lot of our time outside, albeit with blankets to keep us warm because sunny does not equal warm, sadly.

A COVID-19 prevention information sheet posted in a window at our local shopping center

Of course, modern tech makes situations like these a lot easier than they have ever been before. We have phones, video calling apps, messaging apps, email and social media to stay in touch with those we care about, so we can keep ourselves and each other from feeling entirely isolated, and to help us stay abreast of what’s happening elsewhere in the world. Not to mention the access technology gives us to the information that is currently available on this strange, new virus. (Please try to limit yourself to information that is scientifically sound, and to cut out misinformation, disinformation and uninformed talking heads that are seeking to use this situation to sow division. We’ve got enough to deal with right now. This is a global pandemic; let’s look at how we can beat this together – apart, but together.)

The children have adapted to their new reality quite well; both the 12-year old and the 5-year old understand that keeping physical distance from others is important to keep everyone safe, not just ourselves. We’re trying as much as we can to keep a certain routine to our day: get up around 7 am, get dressed, have breakfast, do schoolwork while taking regular breaks for trampoline jumping, and then do some cleaning up at the end of the day before getting ready for dinner, and then bed.

With all that we’re doing to help flatten the curve in order for our healthcare system not to become overwhelmed, we still see people taking this thing lightly, and it astounds me. What we know about this virus is scary, what we don’t know is scarier still.

Things we know (or think we do):

Things we don’t know:

With all this, some things should really be perfectly clear to everyone by now. We don’t want to reach the point where healthcare workers need to start deciding who they will treat and who they won’t – as is already the case in Italy, for instance – simply because there is not enough capacity to treat everyone who falls ill with this virus. We don’t want to find ourselves in a situation where Corona cases so overwhelm the system that there is no more capacity for treating other, non-Corona patients, whether they be patients who require urgent care or patients whose care might not be urgent now, but whose care will become urgent if they don’t receive timely treatment. If that happens, it won’t only be COVID-19 patients that die, but there will be many more other and otherwise preventable deaths.

And, finally, we don’t want healthcare workers working in hazardous conditions in gear that is not sufficiently suited to protecting them from infection. We need to protect these people as they are putting in superhuman efforts to save as many as they can, despite being completely overwhelmed by this outbreak. It should not even need saying that when healthcare workers start falling away, we will be in an unimaginable world of trouble.

The reality we currently find ourselves in is, for want of a more sophisticated word, a running shit show. Effective, informed decisions to prevent the scope of this epidemic should have been made much earlier, but we’re past that point. Now, politics should not have anything to do with how anyone sees this clear and present danger. I didn’t think it was possible, but even under these circumstances, left and right seem to have become even further entrenched and alienated, and it’s because facts and reality have been relegated to the sidelines over the past few years as battle lines were drawn.

This being what it is, no-one’s politics will protect them from the reality of what COVID-19 is doing to everyone around the world. This virus is complex, and there is no silver bullet. One of the main problems we face today is that people who choose to, or are convinced to, set aside the facts in favor of some politician’s desired and often imaginary outcome become a danger to others because they refuse to implement the measures that will keep not only themselves, but also those others safe.

I can’t wrap my head around that. All I can do is make sure that I and my family are as safe as we can be, and to self-isolate until this pandemic is under control. That’s going to take time, but if a little discomfort now means we can still have a later, we’ll be safe, rather than sorry, not just for ourselves, but for everyone else as well.

Finally, a massive thank you to everyone putting themselves in harm’s way to help us through this: EMTs, nurses, doctors, sanitation workers, police, firemen, military personnel, chefs, delivery workers, supermarket staff, pharmacy staff, drugstore staff, and the many others that are keeping our society running. I can’t thank you enough – you’re our superheroes!

Corona Containment

Image from en.wikipedia.org

The morning after new measures were announced to try and contain the spread of SARS-CoV2 in the Netherlands schools are still not closing, the logic being that schools are not very international environments and children don’t seem to get very sick anyway. Also, children staying home from school prevents parents in healthcare professions, for instance, from going to work, because the children need to be cared for.

The problem with that logic is that we don’t know exactly how this things spreads and whether it can also spread from asymptomatic carriers of the virus. Children who are carriers can and likely will spread the illness at home. Parents working in those crucial professions will then still catch and carry the illness (purpose of measure defeated), either becoming sick themselves or potentially exposing more vulnerable people.

A current R0 of 2.5 for this thing means that between 40% and 70% of the world population would become infected with Corona: https://theweek.com/speedreads/897799/harvard-scientist-predicts-coronavirus-infect-70-percent-humanity

Containment is vital at this point if we want to prevent Italian situations, as experts in the field of epidemiology are warning us: https://nos.nl/l/2326881 (in Dutch), and evidence suggests that school closures are among the more powerful weapons we have to flatten the curve: https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/03/does-closing-schools-slow-spread-novel-coronavirus.

There have been reports from Brabant that there is already not enough capacity to test medical personnel at this point in time – https://www.bd.nl/brabant/medewerkers-van-brabantse-ziekenhuizen-niet-meer-getest-op-corona~a5dafe4f/ (in Dutch) – nor are we able to find the source of each infection, which is worrying: https://www.rivm.nl/en/news/current-information-about-novel-coronavirus-covid-19

Last night, our PM spent a lot of time not really answering questions as to why other countries seem capable of closing their schools when we apparently are not (though he did say at one point that he wouldn’t mind closing schools if the advice to do so was stringent enough and he felt it was feasible): https://nos.nl/l/2326914 (in Dutch). Thankfully, at least a motion was passed last night declaring that parents who do choose to keep their children home preventatively will not be faced with fines. It’s a start.

As a side note: unfortunately one of the loudest voices for more far-reaching measures in the debate was one of our extreme right wing politicians, Geert Wilders. While he made good points regarding the virus and our inadequate measures of containment, I am fearful that this will give him more of a political foothold, which would be detrimental for our country, as the rest of his political platform is worryingly xenophobic at best.

But I digress.

One of the biggest problems we face at the moment in this country is that many people still underestimate the seriousness of this disease. The Dutch will say this is “Nederlandse nuchterheid” (Dutch down-to-earthness ), to which I say: there is a fine line between that and negligence/stupidity. Even confronted with truly horrible scenes in Italy, many Dutch people still seem to feel like Corona won’t hit us as hard even if we don’t take the recommended containment measures. That is an illusion.

Even if it is true that many people will likely not become seriously ill from SARS-CoV2, we have a vulnerable share of the population to take into account for which this illness is potentially fatal, and a responsibility to each other – despite expectations that most people who fall ill will recover – not to infect one another if we can prevent it. If you need it put in plainer terms: I don’t think anyone would be particularly thrilled if their friends infected them with an illness, even if they wouldn’t die from the result.

We will have to wait and see how this develops, but for the time being our family is being extra careful and running as little risk as possible, both for our own safety and for the safety of others. We hope others will do the same.

Slow Motion

I just did 20 minutes of bed yoga. This was my first real yoga session in two months. (This post comes from a place of frustration – just so you know. Feel free to skip past the lament and straight to the last five paragraphs or so.)

Since mid-August I’ve been struggling with a running train of health issues, starting with bursitis in my right shoulder. It forced me to a near standstill, partly due to pain and partly because I needed to take care not to let it get out of hand to the point where it would require a corticosteroid injection into the joint (I have experience with those in my other shoulder, and if they can be avoided – avoid them!).

What happened next was pretty much my own fault. Here’s what happened.

We’ve been doing some house and garden renovations. The garden was done entirely by a rather brilliant gardening company who turned our back garden into a thing of beauty– for the first time in years, we actually spent time in our garden, enjoying the weather and relaxing in comfort. But the garden wasn’t the only thing we decided to change.

The living room also got a revamp, and a lot of that was (IKEA) DIY. Now, people who know me will tell you that I tend to attack these projects with reckless (stupid?) abandon, and this project was no exception. There was a couch to be put together and a TV/audio cabinet/book/display case to be built and I was on it! Since the bursitis was in decline, I got cocky and basically spend three days hammering, sawing, lifting, and doing general construction, taking as few breaks as I could because I wanted it done.

This was after I’d spent several hours the weeks before taking apart bookcases after emptying them of what I can only describe as a mountain of books and moving those books into boxes and those boxes around the living room in anticipation of the new furniture arriving.

Now, when I do things like this, I am not particularly good at paying attention to my physical well-being. For instance, I am perfectly capable of ending up with bloody scratches and bruises in strange places without being able to reconstruct the specific events leading to them.

Which is how I broke a bone in my hand. Not sure what I did exactly, but broken it was.

Quite painful, really, especially the first few days in the cast.

It was around that time, incidentally, that I also noticed a painful spot around a vertebra (which I think I can trace back to hitting my back hard against a table while moving around furniture, but I can’t be sure – it’s a particular talent; what can I say?). That painful spot is only marginally less painful 4 weeks on.

All of the above is not to invite you to a pity party, just really to illustrate the self-inflicted nonsense I’ve been dealing with these past 2 months.

And as I said earlier, it’s brought me to a near standstill.

And, as I also said earlier, this morning was my first yoga session in 2 months. It was only 20 minutes of bed yoga, but that’s the only yoga I can do at the moment. My hand and wrist have been painful, stiff and near devoid of strength since the cast came off, and I can’t really place any weight on them, which makes a lot of yoga poses quite difficult (downward facing dog, cat cow, cobra, and so on). So the asanas for now will have to be mostly focused on mobility and flexibility, and any surface I practice on will have to be soft yet supportive, both for my hand/wrist and my back – i.e. bed yoga.

It felt so good to finally be doing yoga again. If I’m honest, it wasn’t just the injuries that kept me from practicing; I’ve also been in a bit of a funk since all of these issues started. Pain is demotivating and exhausting, not to mention it makes you pretty damn cranky! But as, since all this started, I’ve gotten only a fraction of the exercise and movement that I used to get as recently as 4 months ago, I’m now seeing a massive decline in strength and mobility. This morning’s session really brought that home for me: I was sluggish and inflexible, and I spent most of the session pushing past the discomfort in various parts of my body.

I also spent a lot of time comparing what I was able to do this morning to what I was able to do not too long ago. Beginner king dancer? Forget it! Crow? Pipe dream at this point. Supported head stand? Umm, no. Eight angle pose? I don’t even want to think about it! And I used to be able to do those poses!!

That said – and this is the good part – it felt so good to finally pick up my yoga again. Nothing has really been forgotten; I still spend a good part of my day thinking about the various poses, yoga philosophies, how to get used to yoga with fewer asanas for the time being, and how I can incorporate what I’m going through into what I hope one day to be a practice that includes others: a practice that aims to help people in similar situations to me, people who have injuries that prevent them from doing the asanas that an undamaged body can do.

It’s also helpful for me to see that I need to make a mental adjustment. While I firmly believe that it’s good to keep striving for progress – of course it is! – doing it just for that reason to me means I’ve been doing it for the wrong reasons of late. I need to do the yoga that is good for me, both physically and mentally. I shouldn’t be doing it to show off how advanced my poses are and how “good” I am at yoga. If you do yoga and you’re doing it well – that is: in a way that is good for your body and mind – then you’re good at yoga. More than that: don’t do yoga to be good at yoga. Do it because yoga is good for you.

Maybe it’s a reminder I needed. For a yogi, I’ve been pretty damn awful at listening to my body, always pushing too far. It’s in my nature, but it’s not exactly healthy or sensible. And it’s certainly not yoga.

So here’s what I’ve concluded: I’m pretty stubborn so life has given me a kick in the butt after repeated and futile gentle nudges. I guess for me the lesson here is to take the subtle hints a little better from here on in. I hope I’m not too old to learn.

Merry Christmas

I’m back here on my blog for the first time in two years. Not counting the political upheaval and all its emotional and real-world repercussions, these have been challenging years – especially this past one.

And precisely because this is true, I have been trying to count my blessings every day, and to enjoy the little things, the moments, the people that make my life special and that keep me going.

So with that in mind: have a very merry Christmas, everyone, and enjoy the holiday season! Stop long enough to recognize and soak up the small things, the moments, the people. It really only takes a few seconds and it’s absolutely worth it!

Restoring the Fourth Estate

Good, honest, impartial and balanced reporting has always been important, but never more so than today.

We’re at a pivotal moment in Western civilization, where societies will commit either to democracy or authoritarianism. Now, more than ever, it is time for the Fourth Estate to recommit to providing one of the most essential checks and balances: an informed public. That means a renewed dedication to reporting facts and truth, and clearly indicating when an item is a news report and when it is an opinion piece or endorsement. It means no more click bait, no more sensationalist headlines, no more unsubstantiated reports, no more claims out of context, no more witch hunts or character assassinations. In other words, it is time for the media to step up to do its most important job: to help people understand their communities, their country, and the world and all its people and cultures.

Ratings and circulation are important, of course, because a media outlet must be a viable enterprise, but the nature and purpose of the press has gotten lost in a tsunami of capitalism and a battle of ideologies. This likely means that a new economic model is needed to ensure an independent, fair and unbiased press whose voice will not be drowned out among the misinformation and disinformation currently poisoning the well.
The mess we find ourselves in today is due to any number of causes, chief among them a lack of transparency, a lack of information and knowledge, and as a result of these a breakdown in communication and a lack of understanding and respect.

In a healthy democracy, there is no room for a post-factual approach or disdain for the truth, especially if it’s an inconvenient one. History matters, and so does the present. In order to preserve the future, there should be a clear and uncontested path for all citizens to obtain the facts, engage in critical thinking on the basis of those facts, and to reach their own conclusions. We may each draw different conclusions, and we may not agree with one another, but at least the foundation will be solid, and we will not be drawn into a disastrous future with the wool drawn over our eyes.